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Lead contamination can seem like a problem we solved long ago, when we wisely outlawed lead in gasoline and paint and stopped using lead pipes. However, like many widely used industrial materials, lead is pretty persistent in the environment and remains a danger if you don’t take precautions. Why should lead merit your attention? Even at low levels, lead can have significant neurological effects.

At higher concentrations it can cause severe organ damage, even death. Lead is not easily removed from the body and the damage it does cannot be reversed. Recent research suggests that blood levels of lead formerly considered acceptable are actually unsafe, and the CDC now advises that there is no known safe level of lead.

Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure because of their size and because their brains are developing so rapidly. They are also at greater risk because they spend so much time on the floor and tend to put things they find in their mouths. Adults exposed to lead through hobbies, jobs, or home renovation also risk health complications and should take precautions. Here’s what you need to know about the primary sources of lead exposure and how to avoid them.

Lead source #1: Paint chips

The United States banned lead as an additive to paint in 1978. If your house predates 1978, you likely have lead-based paint in your house, though it has probably been covered with layers of lead-free paint. As long as your paint remains intact, there’s no reason for worry. But areas subject to a lot of wear and tear, such as windows and stair railings, can pose a risk as paint peels or chips. Paint chips can stick to hands or turn into household dust.

Make sure to keep old paint well covered with a full coat of new paint to keep chips and dust from entering your living space. (Note: While you’re avoiding one toxin, don’t introduce others! Non-toxic, zero-VOC paint options have proliferated in the last several years, and it’s easier than ever to find healthy non-toxic paints to use for these projects. Check out Eartheasy’s guide for specifics.)

Lead source #2: Home renovation

Remodeling is a chief source of lead exposure. When walls are demolished, the released construction dust can contain lead paint particles. If possible, arrange to live somewhere else during home renovations, especially pregnant women and small children, who are most susceptible to the effects of lead. Be sure your contractor follows protocols for containing dust and debris. The EPA maintains a database of certified renovation and testing experts as well as inspection, risk assessment and abatement professionals.

Lead source #3: Soil

Outside your house, soil can become contaminated with lead when pre-1978 buildings are scraped and repainted. If your home was built before 1978 and has painted siding, it’s likely that paint chips containing lead fell in your soil at some point. The area closest to the foundation usually has the highest concentrations of lead.

Recent research also points to the persistence of lead in the soil from decades of use as an additive in gasoline. Though no longer added to gasoline, the lead in our soil remains, especially near busy streets.

If you suspect lead contamination, get your soil tested at an EPA-accredited laboratory, as home tests are not considered accurate. Do not allow children to play in contaminated areas. Avoid planting food crops in soil with elevated lead levels, as there is some evidence that plants can take up lead and other heavy metals. Soil tends to cling to root vegetables and greens, making ingestion of the contaminated soil itself more likely. Fruiting crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash are considered less of a concern, but exposed soil can become airborne and land on food, so it’s always a good idea to scrub produce. And if you raise chickens, pay attention to their lead exposure also, as lead they consume can wind up in their eggs.

If you learn that your soil has elevated lead levels, you can remediate it by removing the top six inches and replacing it with lead-free soil, or you can use raised beds of clean soil with a barrier beneath them. Growing non-food plants and/or covering soil with a thick layer of mulch will also help protect you and your family from lead exposure. Adding compost and raising the pH can help bind lead in the soil and make it less bioavailable to your plants.

Lead source #4: Dust

Degrading paint and contaminated soil can migrate into household dust, which can wind up on hands and get inadvertently consumed. To avoid tracking in lead-contaminated soil (as well as other chemicals your shoes pick up throughout the day), park your shoes by the door. A no-shoes policy in your house keeps all those unwanted compounds out of your living space. Have a washable mat at your door and launder it frequently. To minimize dust accumulation, use a wet cloth to wipe down surfaces and wet-mop floors. Wash kids’ toys frequently to reduce their exposure to dust. And of course, always wash hands before eating.

Lead source #5: Water

Older pipes often contain lead, as do some modern brass fittings and solders. Even if your home does not have lead pipes, some municipal supply lines still do. Lead can leach into water as it passes through.

Hot water is more likely to pick up lead, so it’s a good idea to use cold water for drinking and cooking. You can run the tap for 30 seconds to a minute to clear the line of water that may have absorbed lead from prolonged contact, but this is not a sure-fire method and wastes a good deal of water. A better strategy: get a good water filter, which in addition to filtering lead can remove many other common contaminants, like agricultural and industrial chemicals.

Many garden hoses have also tested positive for lead and other unhealthy compounds. Never drink from a garden hose and don’t sully all the beautiful food you’ve grown in your garden with nasty chemicals. Choose a safe hose instead.

Lead source #6: Toys

A number of consumer advocacy groups have raised awareness of the dangers of lead in toys, and many toy manufacturers have recalled toys that tested positive for lead and other toxic substances. Nevertheless, plenty of toys remain on the market (and alas, in your favorite re-sale stores) that contain unsafe levels of lead. Toy jewelry has been especially problematic. The Ecology Center has some helpful guides and lists of recalled products you might have in your home. You can sign up for email alerts about recalls through the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Young children are routinely tested for lead at 1-year checkups and often again at age 2. If you have reason to believe your child has been exposed to lead, have them tested and address the source of lead exposure if their levels are high. In addition to keeping kids’ toys, hands, and play areas clean, feeding them a healthy diet (especially one that includes plenty of calcium and iron) may also protect them against the adverse effects of lead exposure.

I live in a 1910 house that we have remodeled extensively, and I grow food all over our yard, including the area next to the street. While writing this article, I checked the blood lead levels taken when I was pregnant and when kids were tested at checkups and was relieved to see that all results were the lowest possible. I plan to do a follow up at our next well-child visit, since the kids eat more food from our yard and help out more in the garden than they did when they were tested as toddlers. I will also be dusting and mopping more regularly and having soil samples tested for lead so I can alter planting plans accordingly.

It’s a sad fact of modern life that protecting ourselves from toxins takes a good deal of vigilance. But the health effects of lead are both serious and avoidable if you follow the guidelines outlined above.

References and Resources
EPA Guide to Protecting Your Family
EPA Educational Materials
Lead in the Home Garden
How to Reduce Exposure to Indoor Toxins
For Urban Gardeners, Lead is a Concern
Lead in Folk Medicines